French Open 2014 Men's Semifinals: Djokovic vs. Gulbis Preview and Prediction
On the surface, the semifinal matchup between Novak Djokovic and Ernests Gulbis pits the over-achieving Serbian against Latvia's class clown.
However, public personae aside, these players have much in common. Both men have been known to play the cut-up on court. More importantly, they enter this match seeking the same thing, something they have never accomplished before.
Djokovic is trying to win his first French Open title. Gulbis is trying to reach his first Grand Slam final. His win over Tomas Berdych on Tuesday was his first win in a Slam semifinal.
Both men play aggressive baseline tennis and hit beautiful backhand winners down the line. But Djokovic is clearly the steadier player. Even Gulbis considers Djokovic the harder worker, the more serious one. He told SI.com's Beyond the Baseline that when they were teens training together in Germany, he could see that Djokovic was the more committed player.
“At 13 and 14, he was really dedicated...I used to practice and then that’s it. I would go to my room, I eat Nutella, I play PlayStation. He went to stretch and to go for a run. This was the attitude. He had the talent and the hard work. I had just the talent.”
Lately, Gulbis has also put in the work. But is it enough to defeat the talented, hard-working Djokovic?
Who Has the Historic Edge?
Djokovic leads the head-to-head matchup 4-1. The only Gulbis victory came in Brisbane in 2009, when he took out Djokovic in straight sets.
Their first meeting, the only meeting on clay, was in the quarterfinals of the 2008 French Open. Djokovic won in straight sets. However, it was tightly contested, 7-5, 7-6 (3), 7-5. Djokovic has the overwhelming advantage in terms of semifinals experience.
How Djokovic Has Looked so Far at Roland Garros
Djokovic had to break the big serve of Milos Raonic to reach the semifinals. It proved difficult, with Djokovic winning just 33 percent of his break-point opportunities. Raonic edged Djokovic in winners and break points won.
The difference? Djokovic's consistency. He had 19 unforced errors to Raonic's 40. That's been Djokovic's strength throughout his run at Roland Garros. He's been focused and steady. He's getting better than 65 percent of his first serves in.
How Gulbis Has Looked so Far at Roland Garros
Before Berdych, the biggest challenge Gulbis faced was Roger Federer. Backing up the win against Federer would be another test. Prior to Gulbis beating Berdych, the last eight players to beat Federer at a Grand Slam went on to lose their next match.
But Gulbis, who laughs in the face of protocol, bucked that trend with a convincing straight-sets win over Berdych.
Gulbis, 25, is playing the best tennis of his life. Ranked No. 18, a career high, he is 13-0 in France this year, including a title run at Marseille.
He's won three of his five matches in straight sets.
Biggest X-Factors in the Semifinal
Nerves, experience and emotions will be the biggest X-factors in this match.
Djokovic is one step away from playing for that elusive French Open title. He carries the ghosts of disappointments at Roland Garros with him. Will these ghosts motivate or haunt him?
Experience will also play a role. Gulbis has played on plenty of big stages. But this is the match of his life. He's going up against a six-time Slam winner instead of an opponent like Berdych who has a history of faltering under pressure.
A showman of sorts, Gulbis must handle the French crowd, be they pro or con. He's known for erupting on court and sometimes disrupting his game. Djkovic is about as cool as they come. He can blow the first set and then bagel his opponent in the next. Gulbis' ability to manage his emotions will be a bigger factor.
Djokovic Will Win If...
Djokovic has talent, experience and motivation on his side. If he plays his game and remains focused, he should cruise to victory over Gulbis. However, unlike matches against Rafael Nadal or Federer, where Djokovic has historically been the underdog, he is the overwhelming favorite.
He has to avoid tightening up like he did against Stanislas Wawrinka at the Australian Open.
Gulbis Will Win If...
Gulbis has to play an aggressive, lights-out match to knock off Djokovic. A terrific mover, Gulbis must keep his unforced errors down and mix it up against Djokovic. Throwing in a few devastating drop shots would help keep Djokovic from getting into a baseline groove. He must take note of what Raonic told The Canadian Press after his loss to Djokovic.
"He didn't allow me to do what I wanted...He played close to (the) baseline and didn't let me dictate."
Gulbis needs to pack the kitchen sink, and the bathroom toilet, too. He'll needs to throw everything he can at Djokovic to disrupt his flow.
Gulbis has had a dream run, even if marred by his idiotic comments about women. However, he's going up against a determined Djokovic.
Besides the better overall record, Djokovic has the better clay-court record. He is 8-1 this year and has a career winning percentage of .780 on clay. Gulbis is 12-4 on clay this year and just over .500 for his career.
Expect Gulbis to come out swinging freely. He'll have enough fight to challenge Djokovic. However, the Serbian will be ready and close Gulbis out in four sets.